Digital vs. Offset Printing: How To Choose?
In the past decade, digital printing has benefited from a surge in popularity… due to a combination of increased affordability, technical advancements, and the availability of more options than were previously possible in digital print. Literally hundreds of new digital print companies have opened their doors online, making commercial print solutions more readily available to everyone. That said, this growth in popularity has also caused quite a bit of confusion for those not “in the biz”, and a few unscrupulous (or plain inexperienced) companies are taking advantage of this confusion… resulting in a large proportion of print consumers walking away with a product that does not meet their needs.
An understanding of the advantages and disadvantages of digital printing versus those of traditional offset lithography, is crucial in making the right choice in your printing company.
OFFSET: Offset lithography is the most commonly trusted high volume commercial printing technology. In offset printing, the design image is first burned onto a plate, and is then transferred (or offset) from the plate to a rubber sheet, and finally to the printing surface. The lithographic process is based on the repulsion of oil and water. The image to be printed gets ink from ink rollers, while the non printing area attracts a film of water, keeping the non printing areas ink-free.
DIGITAL: If you have a desktop printer at home, you’re likely already familiar with the mechanical process of digital printing. Many of the mechanical steps required for offset printing are eliminated (namely, making films and color proofs, manually stripping the pieces together, and making plates), which results in a much more affordable print solution.
ADVANTAGES OF DIGITAL & OFFSET METHODS
1. Shorter turnaround
2. Lower costs for very small print runs
3. Availability of variable data printing (database driven, e.g. mailing lists)
1. Higher image quality, higher resolution and no streaks/spots.
2. Works on a wide range of printing surfaces including paper, wood, cloth, metal, leather, rough paper and plastic.
3. The unit cost goes down as the quantity goes up.
4. Quality and cost-effectiveness in high volume jobs.
5. Many modern offset presses use computer-to-plate (as opposed to the older computer-to-film system) further increasing quality.
HOW TO DECIDE?
Use this checklist to help decide:
[ ] Quantity
Offset printing has a front-end cost load, which means short runs (low quantities) may have a high per-unit cost. But as quantities increase, the unit cost goes down with offset printing. Very short runs can be more cost effective with digital printing; while larger quantities are likely to have a lower unit cost with offset printing.
[ ] Printing Medium
Do you need or want a special paper, finish or unusual printing surface, or unique size? The options are getting better for digital, but offset printing still offers the most flexibility.
[ ] Colour
Digital presses use four-colour process (CMYK) printing. If you need only black ink or one or two ink colors, offset printing may offer a more cost-effective solution. If you need four-color printing, digital may offer advantages in lower up-front costs. That said, a few progressive modern offset printing companies are now offering rich full-colour printing, with no added plate/setup fees for additional colours.
[ ] Pantone®
If you’re planning to print using the Pantone® Matching System, offset printing will give you the best match, since it uses actual Pantone® ink. Digital printing simulates the color using a four-color matching process, so some digital printers may offer less accurate color matching on projects.
[ ] Turnaround
If you need it fast, digital usually offers quicker delivery. Again though, a few select offset print houses are now offering print turnaround in as short a timeframe as 24 hours.
[ ] Proofing
Digital offers more accurate proofs, since what you see is an actual sample of the printed piece, printed using the exact process as the intended run. For offset printing, if you need hard proofs, stringently accurate colour proofing can become expensive.
[ ] Customization
With the ease of database driven variable data printing, digital printing offers the most affordable way to customize marketing materials, direct mail pieces, letters, etc. with a different name/address or number/code on each printed piece.
Digital printing can be the ideal solution for some people, but in our experience, computer-to-plate offset lithography (combined with respectably high quality stock and finishing) always yields the superior result in print quality. The trick then becomes finding the right partner.
Over the years, we have sampled the services of dozens of local and global print houses, and have painstakingly hand-picked a small selection of partners who put out consistently high-quality product, on time and in budget… with whom we have since developed trade agreements. Not everyone is able to invest this sort of research into choosing the right print partner, but to ensure the best results, we would strongly suggest that you follow these minimal steps:
1. Leave Nothing to Chance
Be very specific with your print company when communicating which stock you want used, which colours, which process (digital vs offset) and what sort of finishing or coating you want on your cards.
2. Get Samples
Before initiating your print project, request samples from your prospective print companies. All reputable print houses have a standing offer of free samples expressly for this purpose.
If you are managing your own print project, and are working with a local firm, be sure to request a pre-press proof before authorizing the full run. This will allow you to confirm that the company understood your specific instructions outlined in item 1 above. It will also allow you a hands-on preview of the final product, so you can catch any imperfections ahead of time. If you are working with a remote partner, be sure to request a digital proof… while this requires an element of trust in terms of the stock and finish, a digital proof will allow you to ensure all visuals are to spec.
In the end, a good design cannot fully live up to its potential when run on a shoddy print job. If you are as careful and selective in choosing a print partner as you were in choosing a design firm, you can ensure that the physical product that actually reaches your partners or customers is of the highest possible quality.
Because all things considered, high quality is precisely the message you want to deliver.
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